In the world of lasers, Lithuania needs no introduction. Despite its modest size, the country is a global player in both scientific and industrial laser technologies, exporting laser solutions to over 80 countries and partnering with the likes of NASA and CERN. And with the ever-increasing global demand for laser applications, the impressive growth rate that Lithuania’s laser sector has been demonstrating is set to continue.
On June 27 to 30, 2023, in Munich, 30 Lithuanian laser companies will present their photonics components, systems, and applications at the Laser World of Photonics – the leading trade fair for the photonics industry. With the event just around the corner, Dr. Gediminas Račiukaitis, the President of the Lithuanian Laser Association, explains how Lithuania made its mark on the global laser scene.
Lithuania’s leadership in laser technologies might be surprising, given the country’s small size. How has Lithuania become a hub of laser technologies?
In the 1960s, the laser was among a number of new scientific discoveries that emerged. At the time, Lithuanian scientists who had been working with optics and microwaves chose lasers as the next area to specialise in. In 1966, the first laser was fired in Lithuania, a mere six years after the world’s very first.
Ever since, there have been two directions of laser development in Lithuania – fundamental research concerned with creating the laser beam itself, and research into laser applications. I believe that this is where our strength lies: we have people working on controlling the light and improving the laser itself, and people searching for its best application.
While we started with research, it didn’t take long for us to begin looking into the ways our lasers could be used in various industries. It’s been forty years since we started selling our lasers, and roughly two decades since our industrial laser production has picked up speed. Today, we have a full-value chain of laser technologies in Lithuania – from optical coatings to laser workstations and beyond.
Lithuania is home to over 60 companies building and producing laser technologies. What kind of lasers are made in Lithuania, and what are they used for?
There are three key competences of our laser sector – reliable industrial ultrashort pulse lasers, high-intensity petawatt and terawatt-class lasers, and tunable wavelength lasers.
The lasers we produce for the industry are used in a wide variety of fields. For instance, in the electronics industry, they are instrumental in manufacturing very small electronic components that require high processing precision. Industrial lasers are designed to be very reliable and can operate non-stop for a long time.
We also produce powerful ultrashort pulse lasers for fundamental research. These lasers emit optical pulses that are ultrashort – in the domain of quadrillionths of a second – and are of very high intensity – we’re talking terawatts and petawatts. They are not meant for a scientist’s office but for big research centres and allow us to accelerate particles to observe, for instance, what processes might have occurred straight after the Big Bang.
Then there are tunable wavelength lasers. Usually, a laser has one stable and narrow wavelength, which gives it a single colour. Colourful lasers allow for changes in wavelength. Such lasers are also used for scientific purposes, including spectroscopy, research, and making very precise measurements.
In terms of the laser as the final product we sell, these are the three main products we produce. But the greatest value of our sector is that we have an end-to-end value chain. We can take a piece of glass, make it into an optical component, put that component into a laser, which we can then place into a laser system. You can come to us with an idea, and we’ll deliver the hardware and software of a system that can make, for example, the mobile phone you produce smarter or more personalised.
With an increasing number of industries embracing laser applications, how has Lithuania’s laser sector grown in the last few years?
The compound annual growth rate of Lithuania’s laser industry was more than 16.2% between 2009 and 2021. That’s ten times the growth rate of an average industry in Europe.
And we have proven that we can continue to expand, even in turbulent times. Last year, our sales grew by 21%, amounting to 210 million EUR. Half of them were sales to industrial companies. It might not seem like a very impressive sum, but if you have a mobile phone, chances are that it has a component made by a Lithuanian laser.
What are the reasons behind this strong and steady growth?
Our laser community is very tight-knit. The majority of people – around 70%, I believe – who work in our laser companies have graduated from the Physics Faculty of Vilnius University. Over the five or so years of their studies, they all meet each other at least once. Take our optics industry – it’s populated by companies led by our former students, most of whom did their Bachelor’s or Master’s work in the same lab.
After graduating, some students stay in academia, others go into industry, but they don’t go far. For example, the Science and Technology Park of the Institute of Physics is home to over a dozen laser companies, all within a stone’s throw away from each other. Some companies in this park need help to take off, some just need an address. If a company outgrows these premises and leaves to expand somewhere else, another takes its place.
This means that we have a dynamic community that’s motivated to always move forward, and our tight industry-academia bond makes it easier for us to collaborate. If we need something – an expensive lab tool, for example – we pool our resources to acquire it and continue growing.
Where in the world can you find Lithuanian-made lasers?
You can find them on every continent except Antarctica. We export over 80% of our laser production, and 95 of the world’s 100 highest-ranking universities use our laser technologies. Our markets roughly correspond to centres of high-tech industry and science – the US, China, Germany, Japan, and South Korea are our main export destinations.
This September, we will open a demo centre at the Industrial Technology Research Institute in Taiwan. There is significant interest in Lithuanian lasers from Taiwanese high-tech companies, so this will give them an opportunity to have a closer look at our technologies. For manufacturers seeking to create next-generation products, our lasers provide a way to achieve this goal – and that’s how Lithuanian lasers enter the value chain of state-of-the-art displays, smartwatches, and other electronics. We hope that our cooperation with ITRI will allow us to further fulfil our export potential.
Lithuanian lasers are also installed in ELI – Extreme Light Infrastructure – research centres in Hungary and Czechia. Last year, you were elected Vice-Chair of the ELI ERIC General Assembly. What is ELI and why is it important?
ELI, sometimes referred to as “laser CERN”, is a consortium of countries aiming to build lasers of record-breaking power for research into fundamental physics and chemistry. Lithuania is among its founding members, along with Italy, Hungary, and Czechia, and Lithuanian companies Light Conversion and Ekspla have produced the super powerful ultrashort pulse lasers for ELI facilities.
These high-power lasers are used for particle acceleration. Particle accelerators are among the most versatile tools for all aspects of modern science – from unravelling the mysteries of the matter that constitutes the universe to producing particle beams for cancer therapy. The latter is where my own research is currently focused. ELI operates in a similar way to CERN – there are calls for applications, and scientists are allocated time slots to use these lasers for their research.
ELI is also important because it allows us to avoid constructing massive accelerators. CERN already has a 30-kilometre ring for particle acceleration; now they have plans to build a 100-kilometre underground tunnel. At ELI, we can achieve similar results with several lasers that fit into a single room.
What’s next for Lithuanian lasers?
Despite the significant expansion, there’s still much potential for growth. To fully harness it, we’re working on entering more value chains with our laser technologies.
For example, there’s the microLED technology, which is expected to dominate the new generation of display screens. These screens consist of microscopic LEDs that form individual pixels, offering superior brightness, contrast, durability, and energy efficiency. Currently, we can only manufacture microLED screens as large as a wall, and they cost a million each. If we want to make them smaller and more affordable, lasers will need to be employed. It’s impossible to arrange billions of pixels by hand or with a robot, but with a laser, it only takes one pulse.
That is just one example of lasers producing next-generation products. Regardless of how innovative and high-tech a product is, wherever there’s hardware, it’s highly likely that a laser was used to produce it. Therefore the future looks bright for lasers.